Study prompts call for changes at underfunded library

Director says Port can’t be a ‘premier community’ with facility that is understaffed, in need of renovation or replacement

BARRICADES BLOCK OFF the crumbling retaining wall in front of the Niederkorn Library in Port Washington, which in addition to being underfunded and understaffed is in need of renovation or replacement, a study has concluded. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The Niederkorn Library is underfunded and understaffed and the building itself needs to be upgraded or replaced.

Those were among the conclusions of a five-year strategic plan for the library presented to the Port Washington Common Council Tuesday by Library Director Tom Carson.

“If we want to be a premier community, we need to have a premier library,” Carson said. “We’re not there yet.

“We have to go forward. Things need to be done. We can’t put it off much longer.”

The study conducted by WiLS, a library consulting firm based in Madison, showed that compared to 20 other libraries in similar sized communities, the Niederkorn Library has a larger facility but fewer staff members and its operating expenditures are roughly $100,000 less than other libraries.

The other library budgets average $787,000 while Port’s library budget averages $671,000, Carson said.

At the same time, Carson said, library use has increased.

The number of materials checked out increased 8% in 2022, he said, and visits to the library were up 10%.

Last year, Carson said, there were 5,921 library card holders, 78,000 visits to the library, 766 curbside pickups and 118,000 hits on the library website.

There were also 129,000 items checked out of the library and 23,000 digital items checked out.

“Our library users like e-books,” Carson said, noting they checked out 14,300 compared to 13,800 elsewhere.

But these are expensive, he noted. While an individual can buy an e-book for about $12 , it costs the library $76, and that book can only be circulated 26 times before the library has to purchase it again.

“It would be nice to have a really nice digital collection, but the budget would need to increase” significantly, Carson said.

The Niederkorn Library has three full-time staff members, he said, three fewer than comparable libraries.

“We have a bigger footprint but we have a smaller staff,” Carson said.

And, he noted, the facility is well used. Last week, he noted, the library hosted a blood drive that brought many people to the building, storytimes average 25 people or more and a program on lizards last Thursday drew more than 100 people.

“We are being used,” he said.

And, he said, the study notes that the library typically provides more programming than other libraries its size.

“We have a lot more programming compared to our peers,” Carson said. “The consultant couldn’t believe all the programming we do.”

The library will be limiting some of its programming in the near future, Carson said, because of staffing issues.

“We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have,” he said.

Ald. Deb Postl asked if the library could partner with other city departments, such as the senior center and Parks and Recreation Department, to do programming to avoid having to trim this area.

That’s already being done, Carson said.

But even as its use is increasing, the library building is in need of significant repairs and doesn’t have some of the amenities sought by the public today, the study notes.

The needed improvements include new windows, flooring and restrooms, and the security system is “falling apart,” Carson said.

The building doesn’t have study rooms or conference rooms sought by people today, he said.

“Our current space has beautiful bones,” Carson said. “It needs updating. The last major update was 20 years ago.”

The city has three options — renovate the current space, expand the current building or seek a new building, according to the study.

Carson said that one model seen often today is for communities to work with a developer who provides a space for a library in a residential building.

The new North Shore Library in Fox Point is moving into a space like this, Carson said.

Ald. John Sigwart questioned whether there is a need for a larger space or whether the current space is adequate or too large, noting, “Even people like me are doing more things digitally.”

The study recommends that the library be larger by about 5,000 square feet, Carson said.

There are things that can be done in the next four years to make the library more functional even as the city considers what the long-term solution is, the study notes.

“I’m hoping we have a really good indication (of the future of the building) in a year or two,” Carson said. “We need to think about what we want to do with the building.”

Carson noted that the library study outlines five goals — being a premier library ins a premier community, being a welcoming community forum, having functional, relevant and flexible spaces, providing resources that people can access wherever they are and offering a strong communications plan so people discover all it has to offer.

There is an action plan to help reach those goals, Carson said, adding it is undergoing a final review.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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